Concerns are growing that the 2015 climate talks in Paris will not be able to strike an agreement that restricts carbon dioxide emissions sufficiently to keep the earth within the 2-degrees-Celsius limit generally regarded by scientists as acceptable. Despite the fact that climate scientists are increasingly vocal in their warning that climate change has the potential to cause “irreversible damage” the old carbon economy is not going down without a fight.
I recently came across an article by Eric Holthaus commenting on a 2013 paper entitled, “Is the Earth F*cked?” presented at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting. The AGU paper suggested that radical environmental direct action is a potential way to shift governments and economies away from carbon-intensive industries in an effort to keep the climate from unsafe levels of warming. Holthaus argued that, given climate change’s potential for catastrophic impacts, carbon dioxide emissions need to peak immediately. With government and businesses reluctant to adopt the necessary changes, “revolution” in the form of radical environmental activism might be one of our few options left.
But is such a dramatic social and political shift possible? And what would such a radical movement look like?
The 1980s saw the rise of direct action as a tool for political change in the anti-nuclear/nuclear disarmament movements. Direct action is a form of political resistance that emphasizes building communities of activists around shared values. Tactics usually involve on-the-ground, disruptive demonstrations designed to “directly” challenge powerful actors (think tree-sits and blockades). Most direct action movements are non-hierarchal, meaning that they lack strong leadership structures and instead depend on local movement chapters, or “affinity groups” to contribute to larger actions. Direct action was the tactic of choice for anti-globalization activists and radical environmentalists in the 1990s and, more recently, of the Occupy movement of the 2010s.
Radical political activism can have potent political effects. The nuclear-focused movements where the tactic was born claim some credit for shifting the nation away from controversial nuclear power. While the Occupy movement collapsed and was disrupted before it could enact specific political changes, it did vault the issue of inequality to the center of the national conversation.
But whether radical environmental action is a possible solution to the climate crisis depends on several factors, only some of which are under the control of radicals themselves.
First, radical direct action – and social movements in general – tend to have more success when the movement has popular support, particularly from moderate voices. Recent articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post have suggested that the general public in the United States may be evolving in its relationship to climate change, and more Americans are coming to support measures to combat climate change. That’s good news for a radical movement. Just as the anti-nuclear movement tapped into the public’s latent fears of radioactive contamination, radical climate activists can draw support from the growing public concern over the climate.
But nothing will squelch any emerging alliance between concerned citizens and environmental radicals more than a lack of support – or, even worse – denouncement from mainstream environmental organizations. Modern mass environmental organizations are notoriously squishy on radical tactics. To a certain extent, this reluctance is understandable, since these organizations rely on mass appeal for fundraising and frequently work with the business community on environmental issues. But for radical direct action on the climate to succeed, it has to be supported at least tacitly by major environmental organizations. This support provides legitimacy for radical action and offers cover for moderate environmentalists who feel the call to participate in direct action. Even if they do not directly support radical action with funds or people power, environmental groups can support direct action through positive media coverage and displays of solidarity.
Second, the possibility of radical direct action on climate change hinges in some part on the tolerance of local and national officials. Because direct action on climate change would involve actively disrupting carbon-producing industries with tactics like blockades and sit-ins, activists can only be successful as long as they are tolerated – at least to some extent – by officials. As anyone marching for racial justice in Ferguson, Missouri or Occupying UC Davis could tell you, direct action these days comes with its hazards. Officials who no longer want a protest to continue have tactics of their own for ending it.
Whether activists engaging in direct action will be ignored or cleared out, and how severely they will be punished for continuing to agitate, depends on a variety of factors. In particular, the more radical the demands are, the more likely a movement is to be squelched. And in the case of climate direct action, the demands are likely to be steep. But local, state, and national political leaders have some discretion here. If the activists are seen to be supporting a popular cause, they may face less resistance than if politicians believe them to be extremists. Importantly, this means that any climate direct action must be non-violent. Moral questions aside, any actions seen as violent will immediately dissipate any public and political support climate direct action was able to build, and may even taint climate action as a whole.
And here is the silver lining for would-be climate radicals: large-scale, public support for action on the climate can give cover to sympathetic politicians looking to address the issue. It can also encourage our more opportunistic public officials to be more tolerant of direct action and to support climate policies in hopes of “greening” their own credentials.
The upcoming People’s Climate March in New York City may provide just such an opportunity. A strong showing at the march could demonstrate to public officials how seriously the American public takes the climate crisis, giving politicians a political pretext for addressing the climate as well as an alibi for not cracking down on direct action.
Of course, there are no guarantees in mobilization, and it’s unlikely that even a dozen Climate Marches will protect all activists from arrest and legal retribution. There’s simply too much power bound up in the old energy economy for that. But a sliver of hope exists that displays of popular support for climate action could prevent a direct action movement from being completely extinguished.